Return of the prodigal Hamburger

People with German ancestry are the single largest ethnic group in US.  Yet, it’s a testament to their ubiquity that it’s often not understood by Americans themselves just how subtly German popular culture has influenced their own.  My mother’s family are typical German-Americans as they live in Midwest in a semi-rural setting. German-americans largely live in “fly over” country, not the coasts.  My great grand-parents immigrated to the US shortly before World War 1 and made a bee-line to Midwest and it’s promise of relatively cheap farm land.  My Grandmother spoke a dialect of German (similar to Luxembourgish or Blatt in Alsace) with her parents and 14 brothers and sisters.  While she continued to speak German with her sisters into old age it was very much a private, behind closed doors activity.  The last thing she would have ever considered was teaching her own children to speak German.  World War 2 comprehensively denatured a whole generation of Germanic Americans.

In the Americas (aka the New World), the word “European” is used almost as a snobby superlative.  There is common delusion, for example,  that all Frenchmen are chain-smoking philsophes with 3 mistresses and a fine wine cellar.  Germans are coldly efficient techocrats, and so forth.  OK, there is some truth to stereotypes, but most “culture” is low-brow, and Europeans are no exception.  I put forth to you that much of Midwestern US “redneck” culture is German popular culture, crudely grafted to a new location.

The most obvious vestige of this German heritage is food.  Much of what we think of as generic “American” food is German; Hamburgers, sausages (including the ubiquitous hot dog), inordinate fondness for bread, dill pickles, potato pancakes, fried fish and beer to name a few.  If you’ve eaten at a State fair in the US and then attended a similar event in Germany, the parallels are obvious.  Home style baking in the US is largely influenced by German, not British or French, tastes.  The German fondness for big portions arrived in America and immediately took steroids.  The apfel doesn’t fall from the tree, y’all.

In my last post I mentioned that I took part in a 2018 German Powerlifting Championships for my federation last weekend  https://wordpress.com/post/expatpowerlifter.com/1438.  The competition took place is a smallish town in a beautiful semi-rural setting to the north-east of Cologne.  In short, it was the German equivalent of the community that my mother’s family hails from in the US.  And, yes, it was a powerlifting meet, not post-doctorate symposium on String Theory.  It was a perfect setting to observe German popular culture in action.

First, however, a quick word about me and the German language.  I’ve never failed so completely to learn a language.  Experience has shown that give me a Romance or creole/pidgen language and I’m off to the races…so I’m not a language dunce.  It was therefore with quite a bit of hubris that I began my study of German…and failed spectacularly.  My kids speak (amongst other languages) German and my daughter has a special fondness for it, maybe because it confounds her parents.

Nevertheless, when I arrived in the parking lot of the facility that was hosting the competition, I couldn’t help but feel at home.  There was just a very familiar red-necky vibe…if I squinted a bit I might have been in Michigan or Wisconsin.  Literally,  as in some of them looked like cousins of mine, dark hair, stocky compact builds.  Beer, check, fried food, check, baked goods, check.  Talk about sports, check, talk about cars, check, crude jokes, check.  “Unique” grooming and vestimentary choices, check.  The attitudes, the facial expressions were uncannily like a backyard BBQ in Michigan.  Good people, for the most part, but with a pronounced insular streak, just like back home.  The event was only in German so good luck to the non-Germanophones.  I was the only non-European at the event and people couldn’t have cared less except for a few odd grumbles about my lack of German.   Again, just like you know where.  (The ironic part is that I am 1m80, fair-skinned with blond hair and blue eyes.  So I while look the part in a central casting sort of way, the reality is most Germans don’t seem to fit the blond hair/blue eyes mold.  In my experience, it’s much more common in Scandinavia and Eastern Europe.)

I wish I could describe this feeling better.  I feel more comfortable in a similar situation in the UK or France, Belgium, etc because I speak the languages.  Yet, in spite of my profound ignorance of the language, this felt more “familiar”.  It felt like home.  Take that as you will.  Home is often far from perfect, but it undeniably informs who you are.

Been down so long looks like up to me

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To those of you who started reading this post because you are fans of Richard Farina – my apologies.  This post will not discuss his seminal novel of the same name/title (see above).  For some reason when I sat down to ponder reverse culture shock this phrase/title literally popped into my head.  Score one for the subconscious, that industrious bastard is always cooking up something on the down low.  I think maybe the title came to me because (forgive me, it’s been maybe 30 years since I read the novel) on a broader sense the novel is about shifting paradigms, of examining the familiar from a different critical perspective.  Or maybe it’s just a really cool title.  Perhaps a little of both.

Anyway, I have been pondering this phenomenon of late.  Is it a real thing?  The short answer is “yes”.  Has technology muddied the waters?  Oh hell yes.  (“Muddied the waters”, man, the ol’ subconcious is working overtime today.  I just realized that the title of this post( and Richard Farina’s book) originally comes from an old Blues song.  Muddy Waters didn’t sing it, but you see where I’m going with this…)  Technology, and how it affects acculturation, is a subject fit for a book, not just a blog post.  Suffice it to say that when I was a kid, living outside of my “passport” country, my only real links to that culture were my parents and books.  Powerful forces, to be sure, but add satellite dishes and the internet and you have a very effective layer of insulation between you and the host culture.  This phenomenon is, of course, a very sharp double-edged sword.

Let’s assume, hopefully, that one has adapted in a healthy way to their new host country.  After living there for a number of years you should have learned the language and culture mores, made friends/social acquaintances of different nationalities and feel comfortable, “at home”,  in your host country.   Granted, you have increased ties to your “homeland” thanks to technology, but let’s not forget that those ties are “virtual” at best.  Let’s assume that distance (and maybe inclination) precludes you from visiting your home country often.  At what point does “reverse” culture shock kick in?  2 months, 1 year, 15 years?  And what is reverse culture shock anyway?  A sense of anomie in one’s own country?  This short article from Investopedia (of all sources) describes it fairly well: https://www.investopedia.com/terms/r/reverse-culture-shock.asp

To add some personal perspective to the issue, I will say that nothing is weirder than experiencing culture shock in your own culture.  By now, I have lived outside of my home culture country the majority of my life.  I do make it back there, albeit very infrequently.  The first few days are always a complete head-wrecker.  No joke, I sometimes lean on friends and family in certain situations to tell me what to do or add context, as if they’re cultural Sherpas or something.  It’s faintly ridiculous, of course, so it’s best to recognize the humor and roll with it.  To answer the question above, all the TV and YouTube videos in the world cannot (re)acclimate you sufficiently to a culture.  You need to live in that culture.  While reverse culture shock is indeed a thing, it’s not that big a deal.  You’ve got all the tools you need: family, friends, language, etc.  Reverse culture shock just means that your mastery of the culture has become a bit fuzzy and needs some fine-tuning, like trying to improve the focus of a local UHF TV channel back in the day.  (For you young’uns who don’t get that reference, look it up on the interwebs).